Starting Out in System Change

“What are you doing in your new role?” asked a friend, mentor and general supporter, about a month or so into my new position (Systems Change Partnership Coordinator at Two Ridings Community Foundation).  I described the work that would bring people together to inquire;

What systems perpetuate multiple disadvantage for Children and Young People in York? 

To which she replied “Oh, that sounds a bit academic for you”.  I know that doesn’t exactly sound like support, but support doesn’t always appear in cheer leader form.  My friend had challenged me into being better (once again).  I had made my role and the work sound “other” and inaccessible; that had to change.

I’ve worked in children and young people’s settings since 2007 – Youth Work, Sports, Arts, Alternative Education, Sexual Health support, Covid 19 response, Funding and Community Development; often using systems thinking but not naming it. Since joining Two Ridings Community Foundation in the partnership role with York Multiple Complex Needs (MCN) Network and Lankelly Chase, in September 2020, I have been emerged in Systems Change work; an inspiring, creative and daunting pool of possibilities.  I have attended training, discussed possibilities with people across the City of York, Country and Internationally.  I have read life changing books and articles.  I have met people who have pulled me so deeply into myself that I have had no option but to rise out differently.  Thankfully this change is welcomed and elevated by my loving family.  

This journey has also created internal conflict.  I have fidgeted with the recognition of my own privilege.  Not only am I in secure work, I am also attending training and accessing brilliant development opportunities in the middle of the pandemic.  I have felt like I am letting people down… “How can we explore change over here when there are people who need something right now, over there?”.  In his book Upstream, Dan Heath describes my tug of war better than I can (we have never met or spoken). His words have helped me to reconcile my position;

Imagine sitting by the river with your friends, you see kids struggling as they float downstream, crying out for help. Both strong swimmers you and your friend jump in to fish them out. More kids come down the river, all struggling and need help.  You both keep pulling kids out of the river.  You’re both committed but tired.  But then your friend jumps out of the river – you’re abandoned – “where are you going?!”.  I’m going upstream to stop the kids falling in the river”.

System change requires listening, empathy, understanding and a can do attitude.  Attributes that if you’re lucky, you’ll be wrapped in by front line workers, parents, family, neighbours and friends.  Yet ‘system’ or ‘upstream’ thinking and its application remains aspirational, somewhere off in the distance or perceived as impossible. And for most, it is impossible, people are stretched and the conditions aren’t right.  There isn’t enough headspace to do anything but stay with the kids in the river, and get as many out as possible.  But if we never intentionally go upstream, we may always be stretched; and those worn out kids who managed to get out of the river will be too knackered from their experiences to see an alternative.  You cannot “unsee” system thinking once given that space to explore it – it encroaches every part of you.

Back to the work in York… I, alone, do not have the ideas, understanding and relationships that will make lasting change for children and young people in York. As coordinator, I will do just that, weave together people, ideas and possibilities, creating the conditions and headspace to enable people to do things a bit differently.  Or at least I hope I will…  like a lone dancer in a field I’m currently waving my hands and moving my feet to a beat and hoping some brave people get me and “it” enough to join in.

Correction, I am not alone.  I’m with the brilliant people from my past whose generous leadership, nurturing souls, diversity and wisdom enabled me to get here.  I’m with my allies who have changed my life forever, in the last couple of months.  And I’m with the people, organisations and friends who are ready for lasting change that makes the lives of children and young people in York, better, forever.  What are we accepting that we can change? 

I also ask the sceptics and doubters to join in this conversation.  Make it stronger with a different perspective.  Be the critical friend that’s challenges us to be better.

This work will look different.  It will feel nurturing. It will feel powerful. It will be together. It will feel human. 

But we WILL throw everything out of the window, door, out the boat if children and young people tell us we’ve got it wrong.  This work is for them.  And will be by them.

One thought on “Starting Out in System Change

  1. Great blog, we have been doing a lot of thinking about this in terms of disability and people’s perceptions and how that shapes our responses. Personally we (ToyLikeMe) are already “running upstream” in doing what we do and are also creating a children’s TV show that positively represents children with disabilities. Their disability is not the narrative driver, it’s their curiosity and play personality that drives it.

    I have had the Toy Box Tales exhibition in a few schools recently and although it has had overwhelming positive feedback the language is still verging on the ” special” ” despite his….” even though has xxxx he can still keep up with his friends” etc etc.

    It is all approached from an ablest perspective, which will only change if disability is seen as the norm as part of a spectrum of people. We need to try and dismantle what has gone on before and create a new narrative. In the meantime, we need to give people a more positive response when it comes to change. For example….Disability is a change from the norm, when we encounter it we have a set response, we tend to be curious, inspired by or fearful of it.
    For example when confronted with the fact that a kid is blind, the person sees blackness, fear, worst nightmare (yes my neighbor actually said this) and a huge dollop of pity. They could see it differently; that it is another way to experience life, a journey of wonder, learning with all your senses.
    Take my son, he is Fred ( he is not anything but Fred, he doesn’t see aswell as others, but he does not feel like he is any different until people tell him). Yes of course he is in the minority. He is the change but doesn’t feel like it cos he is going through his every day him. As a race we are born curious and remain so, we learn by cause and effect, its how the brain works in trying to understand. So change causes curiosity. People are trying to understand, hence the question was he born like that and how far can he see? Can the doctors do anything? When the answer comes back as No, they are forced to look at how society views disability and their own situation and fragility and the only response you get is a pitiful one and the dreaded pity stare and ” Ah Bless” Not helpful

    Funding often follows the same path, unless you are overcoming, battling or rescuing, there is limited funds available. You are not seen as working at the coal face, digging people out of their disability pit of despair. People like the status quo, they like to feel better rescuing people, helping them fit into our world and so it continues. If a disabled person is successful they are inspirational, when they are simply living their best life! Funders need to also fund the projects which are making the ripples in the pond, that are changing the narrative, and perspectives on disability of poverty. This is the change and this will have a huge effect down the line and disabled people should be in this driving seat.

    Anyway sorry to waffle on but I do believe unless we change this status quo and dive in further upstream, society and funders will continue to make the same mistakes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: